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If there's one thing a watch brand loves almost as much as a well-designed oscillating weight or a perfectly placed date window, it's making a watch with a link to an existing, established community that is, by definition, passionate.
That passion can be focused on anything, from superheroes to supercars, and they can be powerful. This sort of focused subculture is frequently called a fandom, and while they exist in the real world — car clubs and sports teams, for example — their fervour and organisation make them compelling advocates online.
On top of this — and here's where watch brands start pricking up their proverbial ears — fandoms are a perfect niche demographic. A pre-defined audience invested (and willing to invest) in their special interest of choice. One of the most remarkable examples of the power of fandom is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. MCU films are estimated to have earned more than $28 billion since Iron Man flew onto the screen in 2008, and the revenue from streaming, consumer products and more. In 2021 Forbes estimated that franchises are worth more than $50 billion. Fans are an essential part of this picture. At their most enthusiastic, superfans can act as advocates and influencers in their own right (something watch brands are very familiar with). While this sort of superfan is an incredible asset, they're also not the majority. To continue with the MCU example, plenty of people are fans of the franchise and will happily consume Marvel media any day of the week, but not too many of them are reading the comics upon which the movies are based.
Fandoms are powerful. These passionate groups cut through traditional social and demographic barriers, allowing brands to introduce themselves to an entirely new group of people. While the sort of organic buzz and momentum of passionate fandoms are great for building brand awareness and selling co-branded products is always good for the bottom line, it's the new audience that's the real drawcard and what watch brands really want. Bringing customers into the boutique for the first time is the name of the game.
The partnership between Marvel and Audemars Piguet is a great demonstration of the power a strong fandom can have in the watch world. To date, this partnership has seen two releases, one themed around Black Panther and the other Spider-Man. Both watches were very limited and quite controversial in the rarefied watch world. Not because this sort of character watch hadn't been done before, but because it was Audemars Piguet, a brand regarded as one of the greatest contemporary makers — a 'holy trinity' brand even. For some, this pairing might be jarring, but really it's forward-thinking and very much in keeping with Audemars Piguet's spirit. The brand has always been ahead of the curve when it came to embracing popular culture. Audemars Piguet has never been shy about leveraging the power of celebrity. In the early 2000s, for example, they made limited editions with everyone from *NSYNC, the Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster End of Days and rap royalty Jay-Z. Viewed in this context, the partnership with Marvel is not an outlier but rather an extension of the brand's long-term strategy. By positioning themselves as the go-to watch for the famous and the cool, Audemars Piguet has ensured that they will be relevant for years to come.
From a marketing perspective, fandoms operate in a similar way to ambassadors, with one significant difference. Ambassadors come and go, but fandoms are forever. On top of this, by partnering up with a famous ambassador, the brand is inextricably linking themselves to that celebrity. For the right partner at the right time, that can be great, but it can also go very wrong. From career missteps to scandals, it's easy for the goodwill between an ambassador and a brand to disappear almost overnight. Institutional or intellectual property fandoms are largely immune from this sort of uncertainty. It's a good bet that Disney will still be making Marvel movies in 10 or 20 years time while the actors in those movies will move in and out of the spotlight.
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